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Calvin's Theology and Missions: Calvin and World Missions 3



We ought to pray that this and that and every man may be saved
and so embrace the whole human race, because we cannot yet distinguish the elect from the reprobate...we pray for the salvation of all whom we know to have been created in God's image and who have the same nature as ourselves; and we leave to God's judgment those whom He knows to be reprobate.[1] John Calvin

Given the insurmountable evidence demonstrating Calvin’s passionate and zealous commitment to missionary endeavors, the only question left to answer is whether such zeal is inconsistent with his theology. Specifically, does Calvin’s biblical understanding of the doctrine of Predestination impede his pursuit of world evangelism?  That some have taught this is without question.  Gustav Warneck wrote,

We miss in the Reformers not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions… [in part] because fundamental theological views hindered them from giving their activity, and even their thoughts, a missionary direction.[2]

That Calvin believed in man’s inability to save himself is not questioned. Neither is it questioned that Calvin taught that God must intervene for a person to be saved. He understood and taught that the Holy Spirit must do His work of regeneration before anyone will believe the gospel.  In a sermon on 1Timothy 2:3-5 entitled, “The Salvation of All Men” Calvin makes clear his position on these matters:

We are so contrary in our nature, and such enemies to God, that we cannot but resist Him: we are so given to evil and wickedness that we cannot so much as conceive a good thought. How then can it be that we may become partakers of that salvation which is offered in the gospel, unless God draw us to it by His Holy Spirit?...

…When it pleased God to draw us out of the darkness of unbelief, and give us the light of the gospel, He looked not at any service which we might have performed, or at any virtue we might have possessed: but He called us, having chosen us before. This is the order in which St. Paul maketh mention in Romans 8: that knowing God, we must not take the glory to ourselves. Thus, the calling of the faithful resteth upon this counsel of God; and we see how far the Lord maketh known to us that which He had decreed before we were born.[3]

However this in no way hindered him from persuading believers to proclaim the gospel to the lost. In fact, he closed the above sermon with these words:

…although there be at this day a great forlornness, though we seem to be miserable creatures, utterly cast away and condemned, yet we must labor as much as possible to draw those to salvation who seem to be afar off. And above all things, let us pray to God for them, waiting patiently till it please Him to show His good will toward them, as He hath shown it to us.[4]

Calvin understood “that the gospel does not fall like rain from the clouds, but is brought by the hands of men wherever it is sent from above…”[5]  Thus men must preach the gospel even though a person will not respond without the work of the Holy Spirit.  The apparent tension is resolved when one understands the distinction between the external gospel call (the work of preacher) and the internal gospel call (the work of the Holy Spirit).  Calvin explains,

There will be no ambiguity in it, if we attend to what our former remarks ought to have made clear—viz. that there are two species of calling: for there is an universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savor of death, and the ground of a severer condemnation. Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts. [6]

God calls men by the preaching of the Word (Romans 10:14-18).  Since we are not privy to the eternal counsel of God and thus don’t know who the chosen are, we must call all men to salvation (Matthew 22:14).  Again, Calvin explains:

Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace . . . even severe rebuke will be administered like medicine, lest they should perish or cause others to perish. But it will be for God to make it effective in those whom He foreknew and predestined.[7]

Thus for Calvin, it wasn’t’ in spite of’ his theology but ‘because of’ his theology that he took missionary outreach so serious. The truth of the matter is that the doctrine of predestination is the only ground of evangelism. If God did not predestine people out of their sins to be saved, then no one would be saved.  This doctrine is our solace as we take to the streets as God’s ambassadors summoning ‘dry bones’ to come to life.  As Calvin has said,

It is no small consolation to faithful teachers, that, though the greater part of the world do not listen to Christ, yet he has his sheep whom he knows, and by whom he is also known. Let them do their utmost to bring the whole world into the fold of Christ; but when they do not succeed according to their wish, let them be satisfied with this single consideration, that they who are sheep will be gathered by their agency.[8]

Given that Calvin was a first-rate biblical theologian who was submissive to the Word of God.  And given that he wrote commentaries on almost all the Bible, including Acts, it would come as a shock if he did not understand the importance of missions and evangelism. Yet as we have seen, he did. 

As we have learned, Calvin’s legacy in the matter of evangelistic zeal and missionary impulse is undeniable.  If we had no other testimony to this truth than the long line of Godly men who have taken up his mantle and followed in his footsteps it would suffice to show that Calvinist teaching and evangelistic zeal go hand in hand.  Through men like John Knox, George Whitfield, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, John Gibson Paton, down to our very day his evangelistic and missionary legacy continues.  The church today would do itself well if she gave careful attention to the lessons taught by the Venerable Company of Pastors of Geneva, and in particular to John Calvin.  In the last post I will close with some of those lessons. POST 4

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on John: Vol. 1 (n.p.: Public Domain, n.d.), under “John 17:9,” (accessed April 19, 2011).

[2] Gustav Warneck, History of Protestant Missions, trans. G. Robinson (Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1906), 9, cited in Fred H. Klooster, “Missions—The Heidelberg Catechism and Calvin,” Calvin Theological Journal  7 (Nov. 1972): 182.

[3] John Calvin, “The Salvation of All Men: A Sermon on 1Timothy 2:3-5,” The Highway, (accessed April 18, 2011).

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on Romans: (n.p.: Public Domain, n.d.), under “Romans 10:15,” (accessed April 19, 2011), emphasis added.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , trans. by Henry Beveridge, Esq.  (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[7] John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God’s Elect, trans. J.K.S Reid (London: James Clarke and Co., Limited, 1961), 138.

[8] John Calvin, Commentary on John: Vol.1. (n.p: Publich Domain, n.d.), under “John 10:27.” (accessed April 19, 2011) emphasis added.